Leftovers. Everyone has an opinion about leftovers. I have heard of individuals who refuse to eat them as a matter of principle. Then there are others, like food/travel writer Calvin Trillin, who said: “The most remarkable thing about my mother is that for 30 years she served the family nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found.” Some kids go into immediate whine mode when they hear the word, while harried homemakers consider them a salvation of sorts. I’ve been doing some thinking about this important component of American cooking (or more accurately, American reheating), and I thought I would share some of my observations.
I propose that leftovers can be divided into several categories. The “fresh” group would be foods approximately one to three days into their lifespan beyond the first time served. Just about anything can make it in the fridge or on the counter for this amount of time without becoming completely inedible. In fact, some things get even better with age. Cole slaw and homemade salsa are good examples – sitting around in the fridge for a day or two actually helps meld the flavors together and make these better than the first time around. There are rumors that some people actually prefer the cold turkey sandwich on Thanksgiving night over the warm roasted slices at lunch. There are subcategories of this group as well: leftovers that everybody fights over the next day (cold fried chicken and pizza come to mind) versus leftovers that became such because nobody liked them to begin with.
The second subcategory often evolves into the next major group: the “dicey” division. Some foods can last a week or more in the fridge; others lose their aesthetic appeal pretty quickly. Going back to our cole slaw, if it is beginning to turn color, or the dressing is no longer homogeneous despite vigorous stirring, it could be dicey. Often leftovers in this category look fine on the surface, but require further testing. One of my college roommates had a pretty good system. He would hand the suspicious food to his fiancée and say, “Taste this and see if it’s spoiled.” It worked well for them - they are still happily married and have reproduced without mutations, despite all the spoiled food she must have ingested from our man-cave cooler.
Last and very much least is the “UFO” stage (Unidentified Food-like Organism). Everyone has a story about this one. Either the casserole left over from the Boy Scout dinner has begun to grow thick wavy hair and is considering running for the Republican nomination, or this is Junior’s science fair experiment. (I suspect many budding young scientists have had their research come to a screeching halt during one of Mom’s refrigerator cleanup sprees.) I have worked in businesses that support a break-room fridge rule that if it’s a week old or more, it gets tossed. At home, however, one can leave it in the fridge just in case somebody later remembers what it was, or it just gets pushed farther and farther back into the depths. Forgotten, but not gone.
For our family, the freezer works out to be our leftovers graveyard. If all of our Rubber-Glad-Tupper-Lock containers have disappeared, and the dishwasher is empty, then I know that the freezer has reached near-full capacity. Recently I did an inventory of said freezer (the grown-up equivalent of cleaning out your sock drawer when you have a final exam the next day –I probably needed to mow the grass). In addition to several question marks on my list, I also noted a “dark red substance in the cookie dough tub”. We think its chili. I suppose the freezer transforms leftovers into another entirely unique category. It’s kind of like a cryogenic chamber, where pieces-parts of meals appear to be deceased, but can be brought back to life with a burst of microwave energy.
I don’t mind leftovers, personally. In fact, I sometimes decree (being king of the castle and all) that we shall eat nothing but leftovers until they are all gone. “Let them eat red velvet cake for breakfast!” I might decree. These decrees are usually proclaimed just prior to a vacation or the like. Sometimes those decrees just result in more mystery containers disappearing into the abyss of the freezer.
But at other times I exercise my spiritual gift of bringing seemingly random foods together to make interesting meals. If you are having trouble recalling this as a true spiritual gift, I consider it to be an extension of the gift of discernment, allowing the recipient to discern what leftovers go well together, or what should be thrown out. It is especially useful for those who attend lots of church potlucks. We can’t all be preachers.
Jay Reed is a local foodie and pharmacist. The culinary tastes expressed here are his and do not necessarily reflect the appetites of the Starkville Daily News or individual members of its staff. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org .